The Art of Jean Racine
“I recommend theatrical representations to you, which are excellent in Paris,” said Lord Chesterfield in a letter to his son. “The tragedies of Corneille and Racine, and the comedies of Molière, well attended to, are admirable lessons, both for the heart and the head. There is not, nor ever was, any theater comparable to the French.”
Lord Chesterfield was writing as a member of a small intellectual élite, but we must applaud the breadth and catholicity of the eighteenth-century aristocrat’s taste. We must also lament the slowness of his countrymen in following his enlightened lead. Molière has always been a favorite with Anglo-Saxon audiences, but the two great French tragic dramatists have long been a stumbling block. The day is happily past when a Lytton Strachey could declare that Englishmen had always “detested” Racine, or when visiting French theatrical companies felt that it was too much of a risk to mount any of his plays in London. He now has a small and devoted following in English-speaking countries. A few years ago Mme Edwige Feuillère altered her schedules and prolonged her stay in London so that she could play Phèdre at every performance for a week at a West End theatre, which she did to packed houses. More recently the Marie Bell company played three of the major tragedies for a week each in the proper style: straight through without an interval for rest and refreshment. Once again the house was packed.
Corneille, a more difficult writer because he is an exponent of an unfashionable heroism, has been less fortunate. I cannot remember a production of any of his plays in London since the Gaston Baty company did Le Cid in the early Thirties. He has been described in his own country as “our Shakespeare,” but not long ago an Oxford don remarked, a trifle patronizingly, that though Le Cid was “an excellent play,” it had never occurred to him to think any part of it “poetic.”
Lord Chesterfield was right in commending all three dramatists to his son and those critics have been wrong who praised Racine at the expense of Corneille, or Molière at the expense of both. They are masters in the sense that each gives consummate expression to a particular phase of human experience, that each represents one of the “constants” of the French genius. We shall really understand them only when we have come to feel that all three are necessary to us, and that the absence of one of them would have left a gap which neither of the others could have filled.
The difficulty lies in accustoming ourselves to a form of poetry which is very unlike the native product. It is largely a matter of language and versification. Sixteenth-century French possessed a good deal of the rude earthy vigor, the richness and concreteness of English. These qualities were swept away by a linguistic revolution that took place at the beginning of the seventeenth century and was designed to purge French of …